Monday 6 June 2022

Precious Things: a lovely survey of Bernard Hughes' recent choral music from Epiphoni Consort on Delphian

Precious Things - choral music by Bernard Hughes; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; Delphian

Precious Things
 - choral music by Bernard Hughes; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; Delphian
Reviewed 30 May 2022 (★★★★)

Intelligently written contemporary choral music in beautifully crafted performances in a recital which proves a finely satisfying showcase for Hughes' recent choral music

This new disc Precious Things from Delphian features a selection of unaccompanied choral music by Bernard Hughes, performed by The Epiphoni Consort conducted by Tim Reader. Many of the works on the disc were written for the BBC Singers, and in fact Hughes was drawn to writing for vocal ensembles after a BBC Singers workshop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival back in 2002. Since then he has developed a close relationship with the BBC Singers. 

The music is generally tonal and beautifully written for voices. I know from experience that Hughes music is both satisfying and challenging to sing, as well as being rewarding for both singer and audience. The music mainly dates from the period 2014 to 2021, and the pieces show a remarkable consistency of approach from Hughes. Whilst his music is tonal, it is never obvious; there is a sense of coming to tonality sideways and he never seems to take the easy way out. This is certainly not minimal music, nor is it boringly the same; within his chosen compass, Hughes provides us with remarkable variety. 

Hughes is clearly one of those contemporary composers for whom tonality means a journey, from one tonality to another, and often it is the journey itself which is interesting. This can mean stark moments, interesting passages of bitonality as well as one tonality drifting into another, the overlap causing some very luscious chords. Unlike a number of the most sung contemporary choral composers, Hughes doesn't have a single manner that he sticks to. Each piece is individually crafted And this is what makes this disc so satisfying. Despite being made up of 23 largely short tracks, the resulting recital has a nice coherence as well as a compelling variety. Tim Reader of the Epiphoni Consort has made a fine selection of works, but Hughes also rewards us with an interesting variety of approaches. In A Ternary of Littles, Hughes deliberately set out to write each movement utilising a single and distinct texture, imitative polyphony, homophony dominated by melody, and strong block chords. And these also demonstrate that Hughes does not shy away from strong, discordant harmonies.

Partly the sheer variety stems from Hughes' eclectic selection of texts. The title track Precious Things sets three texts by poet contemporaries of Hughes, Antony Dunn, Helen Eastman and Andrew George (two of whom Hughes knew at university). Elsewhere there is Michael Symmons Roberts, Kevin Crossley Holland, Vera Brittain, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Longfellow, Robert Herrick, and Shakespeare, plus the Bible. In I Sing of Love, written for Seattle Pro Musica in America in 2012, Hughes uses texts from Song of Solomon, the Islamic mystic Rumi, and I Corinthians. 

The sound world is some way towards a 21st century English part-song tradition, and you feel that such works as RVW's folk-song arrangements and Shakespeare songs are in the back of Hughes' cupboard along with other interesting English composers. Hughes interest in words, per se, means that we also get a distinct whiff of the English madrigal

Throughout, the performances from Tim Reader and the Epiphoni Consort are near ideal. The choir makes a warm vibrant sound, yet with a lovely focused clarity and terrific attention to the words. Not only is there clarity of diction, but the words actually mean something.

This is a very fine disc indeed to introduce Bernard Hughes intelligently and sympathetically written choral music.

Bernard Hughes (born 1974) - Perhaps
Bernard Hughes - Psalm 56
Bernard Hughes - Precious Things
Bernard Hughes - The Linden Tree
Bernard Hughes - The Singers
Bernard Hughes - If we shadows have offended
Bernard Hughes - Jubilate Domino
Bernard Hughes - I sing of Love
Bernard Hughes - Two Songs of Spring
Bernard Hughes - Jesus, Springtime
Bernard Hughes - A Ternary of Littles
Bernard Hughes - Seek the peace of the city
Bernard Hughes - Vocalise
The Epiphoni Consort
Tim Reader (conductor)
Recorded 3-5 September 2021, All Hallows', Gospel Oak
DELPHIAN DCD 34289 1CD [68.47]

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